A look at Illinois public education through the eyes of its administrators

By Robert Holly, CU-CitizenAccess / Photo by Darrell Hoemann

Nearly 4,000 schools.  850 district.  2 million students and 127,000 teachers.

And as the Illinois state superintendent of education, it is Christopher Koch’s job to watch over all of them.“I oversee the implantation of pre-K through 12 education,” said Koch, who has held his position since the end of 2006. “We need to look not just at whether kids are attaining a grade level, but whether they’re closing achievement gaps that are in place.”

It is a system in which graduation rates have declined in the past five years – although they remain above the national average – and state achievement test scores have dropped as well.

To close those achievement gaps, Koch said he has largely focused on strengthening education standards and improving data collection. For example, during his time as superintendent, Koch has helped transition Illinois into becoming one of the 43 states under the Common Core standards.

The Common Core program defines itself as “a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts.” Proponents of Common Core – designed by a collaboration of teachers, administrators and education experts – claim the program creates more rigorous standards and requirements for students in order to graduate high school. In theory, the program sets a uniform benchmark level for what students need to know.

Illinois officially became a Common Core state in June of 2010.

Raising the bar

“Raising the bar for teachers and principals has meant a couple of things in the state,” Koch said. “First of all, it means that we have high standards, that we’ve reviewed the standards of other states and other countries and adopted the standards that we’ve adopted.”

The only states that have not adopted the Common Core standards are Texas, Oklahoma, Alaska, Nebraska, Indiana and Virginia.

But, even in Illinois, some skeptics are critical of the standards, arguing that stiff requirements do not afford flexibility when it comes to individual schools. Additionally, critics say the Common Core standards place prominence on English and math, but neglect other key areas such as the music and art.

In an open letter to Peru Elementary School District 124 parents, Superintendent Mark Cross wrote that “we believe that kids should be well-rounded, with an emphasis on a solid foundation for learning across all subjects by the time they get to high school and later college.”

“The state and federal government have failed epically in their misguided attempts at ‘reforming’ public education,” the letter continued.

Andrea Brown, a member of the Illinois State Board of Education, said she supports the job Koch has been doing. She said much of the criticism simply comes from a tentativeness to embrace change.

“He’s very committed to making sure he touches base with everybody that has a part in this,” she said. “And, that’s not always easy, because there’s always a little pushback when you’re talking about change.”

Changes in Standards

A review of state education data shows that changes in standards have also lead to what seems to be a sudden drop off in test scores, a trend especially evident when looking at the Illinois Standards Achievement Test.

In 2011, 79 percent of Illinois students met the achievement test’s standards for reading, while 86 percent of students met the achievement test’s standards for mathematics. Students recorded the same scores for both categories in 2012, as well, according to data from the Illinois State Board of Education.

Last year, those numbers plummeted.

Only 59 percent of Illinois students met the achievement test’s standards for both reading and mathematics.

Education administrators worked to raise the achievement test’s reading and math benchmarks in January of last year. They cite the drop in test scores as a result of the fact it became more challenging overall.

This school year, administrators will do away with the Illinois Standards Achievement Test entirely and transition to a new testing system that is fully aligned to the state’s Common Core standards.

In the face of political pressures, administrators remain hopeful

Despite the concerns and differences in opinion, Koch is currently one of the longest-serving state superintendents in the entire country, a fact his supporters say is a testament to Koch’s effectiveness and ability to lead.

“I believe that Christopher Koch is a leader in education – nationally and at the state level, both,” said Brown, who has been involved with Illinois education since 1957 when she first became a teacher in a rural school in southern Illinois. “He is able to put conflicts and concerns into a win-win situation with various groups.”

“I have seen many superintendents through the years, and he ranks at the top,” she added.

Additionally, David Fields, who serves alongside Brown on the Illinois State Board of Education, said Koch’s longevity is impressive considering the current polarized political climate.

“We were sort of at each other’s throat in the state in terms of education and the state board,” Fields said. “I think he’s been able to bring everyone together in a less confrontational manner.”

Although Illinois has experienced many well-publicized financial woes, data show that the yearly per student instructional cost has increased during the previous five years under Koch’s leadership.

In 2009, the per student instructional cost – the amount directly dealing with the reaching of students or the interaction between students and teachers – was $6,103.

Last year, that total increased to $6,974, a figure that reflects the national average of about $6,800, according to National Center for Education Statics data.

As state superintendent, Koch earns a salary of $222,468.

“I think we have, certainly, some challenges ahead, financially,” said Fields, who has worked in public education since the early 1960s when he started as a Danville High School teacher. “We will always have challenges because we do not have a standard kid that repots to school every day.”

A portrait of the Illinois public school student

When it comes to student demographics, Illinois is almost perfectly binary in terms of both race and income.

About half of its students are listed as “White,” according to state education data. Black students make up the largest minority demographic at about 18 percent.

And about half of Illinois students are classified as low income.

“We have two million youngsters plus, and they’re all different.” Fields said. “And, I’m grateful that they’re all different, but that means we have to constantly be moving and challenging ourselves to improve upon what we do with our youngsters in our classrooms every day.”

State education data show that most of Illinois’ public students graduate in four years, though overall numbers have declined from five years ago.

In 2009, 87 percent of Illinois seniors graduated from high school.

Last year, the number fell to 83 percent.

Still, last year’s graduation rate for Illinois seniors was better than many other states. The national graduation rate checks in at about 80 percent, according to the most recent statistics from the Department of Education.

Moving forward as the state superintend, Koch will work to keep those graduation rates high.

“Education matters immensely to the wellbeing of an individual,” Koch said.

 

This story is funded in part by a $10,000 grant from WNET that WILL-TV received in partnership with WTVP-TV in Peoria and CU-Citizen Access, a community journalism project of the University of Illinois College of Media. These stories are airing in September between programs this month as WILL-TV gears up for a day of broadcasting about the dropout crisis, American Graduate Day, from 10 am to 5 pm on Saturday, Sept. 27. You can learn more online at will.illinois.edu/americangraduateday.